A journey of survival

By Chris McCall
Courier Mail
SAT 27 OCT 2001

SHE looks like any other sweet little girl as she rides a trike around a shelter for illegal immigrants just outside Jakarta. But her face is blank.

At night she calls out for her mother, not understanding that she is dead.

Two-year-old Kawther Sadik cannot yet comprehend it, but the fact that she is alive is a miracle. And the man she has to thank is her father.

She is the youngest survivor of a leaky ship which sank on October 19 with more than 400 Middle Eastern asylum seekers on board, mainly Iraqis. Before the boat went down, several survivors reported seeing lights and two unidentified white fibreglass boats.

More than 350 drowned in the incident, after each paying hundreds of US dollars for the one-way trip to death which ended near Australia's Christmas Island.

Kawther is a Shi'ite Muslim from the southern region of Thee Kar, like the other Iraqis on the boat. After the 1991 Gulf War, then United States president George Bush called on these people to rise against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. When they heeded that call, they were slaughtered as the Americans held off. Kawther's uncle was executed, although she is too young to have met him. Born in Iran, where her parents fled in 1998, she has never seen Iraq. Her father Sadik Razaak Tola, now 26, and mother Sanaa Wadan, 23 when she drowned, paid a 'fixer' to take them across the border. They had to walk for five hours.

But life in Iran proved hard. Although Iran is Shi'ite, Iraqi refugees are not popular and are not allowed to work, are not resettled, and cynics say Tehran regards them as a useful diplomatic bargaining chip.

Sadik says that eventually they obtained false Iraqi passports and tickets to Kuala Lumpur, then a boat to Indonesia, where they arrived a few months ago. The fee for the trip from Malaysia to Indonesia alone was $US500.

In Indonesia, things were little better, and persuading the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to accord them refugee status was hard, with a long queue ahead of them. Frustrated, the family decided to pay people smugglers another $US1000 for a trip to Australia. Kawther went for free.

As Sadik recounts it, the trip appeared doomed from the outset. It began somewhere in southern Sumatra. He is not sure where. Like most of the others, he cannot speak English or Indonesian, only Arabic.

'At the time we sailed there was a small hole in the boat. But the captain said there was a pump which would get the water out of the ship and it was very normal,' he said through a translator.

Four people tried to get out, but were forced back at gunpoint by police officers working with the smugglers.

'After 24 hours we reached the Indian Ocean. There were very high waves and it was raining and the hole became larger. The first pump stopped and the captain tried to make the second pump work. After one hour the second pump stopped and the hole had increased in size.

'But the people did not think to return to Indonesia because their situation there is very difficult. All decided to continue the trip. The people decided to go to Australia.

'After that the water rushed inside the boat.'

The people tried to bale it by hand, but the water was coming in too fast. After another hour it was over the engine, which stopped working.

A few minutes more and the heavy waves started rocking the boat. Then it capsized. Most of the children on board didn't have a chance.

'It was when I hit the water I saw the bodies of the children and the women floating on the water, because they did not have life jackets,' said Sadik. 'I had drunk some of the seawater and I was vomiting. The children died immediately.

'I was with my wife and I had my child with me, too. Because of the waves we were separated. Once or twice I lost my child but captured her again.

'There was a plastic bag with drinking water inside it floating in the water. I rescued my child and made her drink that water.'

By sheer luck Sadik had been one of about 100 passengers who had grabbed a life jacket. He put Kawther in it and let her sleep. They were in the water more than 20 hours.

'In the night we saw the lights of some ships but they did not come to rescue us,' he said.

'In the morning there was a small boat, a fishing boat. These fishermen had seen some pieces of the boat.'

Earlier this week the number of survivors grew by one to 45, after one more was picked up separately -- the only survivor of a group of about 20 who had been adrift for 37 hours, nearly twice as long as the others.

The tragedy did not end there. Three days later, when the fishermen arrived in port, Indonesian immigration officials at first tried to lock them up. The survivors refused to get out of the boat until UN officials arrived.

Since then some have received threats from the people smugglers, warning of reprisals if they tell too much about their harrowing ordeal.

Moved from holding centre to holding centre around the Jakarta satellite town of Bogor, they are confused and depressed. Some are already back in talks with the traffickers about hiring new boats.

They say two more boats are already heading for Australia.

Many have been refused refugee status and they receive no help from the Iraqi Embassy, which regards them as criminals. Many distrust the embassy officials, fearing they will take their photographs and use them to victimise their relatives back in Iraq.

Kawther may be the youngest survivor, but her lack of understanding may make her ordeal easier to live with than some of the others.

Zainab Ihsan, 12, lost her parents, two brothers and two sisters. She saw the body of one of her brothers floating in the waves. He was already dead.

She is desperately hoping an uncle in Sydney can arrange for her to come to Australia.

Hussain Jawad Hussain, 10, lost his mother, grandmother, sister and brother. His father is recovering from serious injuries in hospital. His entire body is covered in cuts and fish bites.

Out of a family of 15, only six survived. One uncle, Mohamad Ali Hussain, 45, lost his wife and all his children.

Still semi-delirious in hospital, Mohamad weeps easily and recalls how he dreamed while in the water that he had been rescued, then he opened his mouth to speak. He was brought back to reality as he swallowed some seawater.

For Kawther and her father, the only hope is that international sympathy might give them a new start.

'We have nothing in the world now. I have lost my wife. Before us there are many people waiting for a year-and-a-half,' said Sadik 'I don't know what to do now. I am looking for a place to save my child. We ask for an organisation to help us and to find us a shelter, anywhere in the world which is safe for us.'

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